“Near the southeast corner of 57th Street and Kimbark Avenue, a granite bowl displays the initials ‘S.P.I.A.’ The bowl was originally set up by the South Park Improvement Association in 1905 to water horses. What was the SPIA?
“‘South Park’ once referred to the neighborhood that formed around the train station at 57th Street. The railroad called the stop ‘Wood Pile’ because it was where the steam engines refueled. After real estate investors complained that they couldn’t sell lots in Wood Pile, the Illinois Central renamed the stop “Woodville” and then ‘South Park’ in 1881 because it was near the newly landscaped north end of Jackson Park, which was the eastern part of the South Parks System (Washington Park, the Midway, and the boulevards). Upper-middle-class professionals quickly moved in.
“A trolley along 55th Street created a commercial strip and a northern border to the neighborhood. On the east, livery stables, taverns and cheap housing sprouted up along the tracks on Lake Park. The Midway Plaisance defined the southern border. On the west, a stream meandered southeast from property owned by Marshall Field. He shrewdly donated 10 acres to the University of Chicago in 1890. When the university realized it needed more land, Marshall Field charged them a fortune. He then made a second fortune selling lots east of campus to U. of C. faculty. (Eventually, 44 professors built homes in South Park.)
“Meanwhile, the 1893 World’s Fair replaced some of the low frame buildings with multi-story hotels. The Fair also brought the City Beautiful movement and the belief that clean, landscaped cities produced physical, mental, and moral health. The formidable Chicago Woman’s Club embraced the cause across the city.
In 1901, two members of the club, Mrs. Frank Asbury Johnson (Annie) and Mrs. Joseph Twyman (Caroline), met in Annie Johnson’s house, 5817 S. Kenwood Ave., and decided they needed a South Park Improvement Association. When they called a public meeting of South Park residents, the Inter Ocean newspaper snarked that “women accustomed to Persian rugs and polished floors” were going to clean the streets, though it conceded that they weren’t going to do it themselves in their ‘dainty shoes’ and ‘trailing skirts.’
“At the meeting, Annie Johnson and Caroline Twyman made their case. The streets and alleys, which were unpaved with few gutters or sewers, needed watering down to prevent great clouds of manure-laden dust being kicked up by wagons and horses. Litter and leaves needed to be cleared from the sewer inlets on the paved streets. Snow needed to be cleared from sidewalks. Vacant lots needed to be picked up and weeded. Ordinances needed to be enforced in the firetrap buildings the fair left behind. Half the district had no alleys, so garbage and ash cans blocked sidewalks, waiting for the city scavenger. Black coal smoke billowed from large polluters like the University of Chicago. The raw new buildings throughout the neighborhood had no landscaping. The streets had no shade. The neighbors agreed. They elected an almost all-male board of volunteers to incorporate the SPIA as a not-for-profit, which collected dues and hired a superintendent and workers.” (Morse, Hyde Park Herald, 4/12/22)